Seven Years In Tibet and Kundun; Two Contemporary Movies on the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism

Based on the relative "flood" of Buddhism-inspired movies these days, the 1990's might be called the "Buddhism Decade." A few years ago, we witnessed Keanu Reeves starring as Siddhartha (the Buddha's name before his enlightenment) in Little Buddha (see Little Buddha review). Recently, we've seen the release of two new movies of interest to Buddhists, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. Both of these movies concern the story of the Dalai Lama, and for American movie goers who might consider seeing either of these movies, there are likely to be several points of interest. Some might be interested in the Dalai Lama as a modern-day "god-teacher-hero" leading his people against the Chinese government's oppression, while others might have a specific interest in Tibetan Buddhism ("if it's good enough for Richard Gere, it might be worth checking out for me"). However, the majority of movie goers probably just have a general curiosity about Buddhism. In other words, for those of us not specifically interested in Tibetan Buddhism, how well do these movies explain the essence of Buddhism? Since all sects of Buddhism originated from the same teachings of the historical Buddha, the essence of his teachings should be common to all sects.

Seven Years in Tibet:
Most Americans are probably familiar with the story of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people's struggle against Mao Tse Tung and the Republic of China. Of course, many Americans probably believe the Dalai Lama to be the "head Buddhist," much like the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church. The American media certainly seems to treat him that way. Of course, he is actually the head of the Tibetan sect of Buddhism, and of the Tibetan people. The popular view of him probably has more to do with his life-long and heroic struggle against the Chinese government than it does with any inherent advantages in the Tibetan form of Buddhism. I think also that American celebrities like Richard Gere seem to have a natural urge to want to "champion" a good, right and just cause. If you are one of those interested principally in either the Dalai Lama's story or the story of the Tibetan people, Kundun is probably the better choice, as we shall see later. One of the reasons for this is that the focus of Seven Years is really the story of Heinrich Harrer, as played by Brad Pitt.

Seven Years in Tibet has, I think, been unfairly criticized by movie critics; it seems they couldn't "stomach" a movie with both Buddhism and Brad Pitt. However, if you can get by all the baggage Brad carries with him (if you can believe him as a W.W.II Nazi mountain climber), he is in fact a good actor. And Seven Years presents a good story. Harrer was a W.W.II Austrian mountain climber attempting to climb the Himalayas. The expedition ran into bad weather and eventually landed him in Tibet, resulting in his now famous friendship with the teenaged Dalai Lama. Harrer, at that time a Nazi, was an extremely arrogant and ill-tempered person. Obviously, after meeting the Dalai Lama, the friendship begins to have a calming effect on Harrer. However, if we weigh the relative effects of Harrer's W.W.II experiences on his character, it actually seems as if it was Harrer's association with his friend, played by David Thewlis, that had the more profound effect.

The key event in the movie to me as a Buddhist is what I call the "watch incident." What happens is that during their escape over the Himalayas from the British concentration camp (which they landed in when their original expedition failed), the character played by Thewlis was "tricked" by Harrer into selling a valuable watch to a roadside vendor for food. We find out that Harrer had several watches he himself could have sold, but selfishly "conned" Thewlis into selling his. Much later, after the two of them have gone through the entire movie blaming each other and competing with each other for "favors" (including the love of a beautiful girl), there is a very touching scene. Harrer gives the Thewlis character a gift. It is the long-lost watch, which Harrer had apparently found in the local market. It brings the Thewlis character - and us - to tears.

Though it is not specified in the movie as such, I think Buddhists will recognize this as the classic "Buddhist transformation." One of the key teachings of Buddhism regards how our human tendency to see things only from our self-centered perspective causes suffering in our lives and in the lives of those around us, and Seven Years illustrates this truth. Just as Harrer does, we also can receive this enlightenment when we suddenly realize how selfish we've been and how that has blinded us to our common humanity. To Harrer, it was like saying to the Thewlis character, whom he had previously schemed and fought against, "You are my brother."

Kundun - the name of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet - generates many comparisons to Seven Years since they both concern the early life of the Dalai Lama, before his exile into India. However Kundun recounts much more of his life, from his discovery at age two all the way to his flight into exile at age twenty-four (in 1959), to escape the tyranny of Mao Tse-tung. In addition, there are no American stars, so the focus is entirely on the Dalai Lama. For this reason, those movie goers who are primarily interested in either the Dalai Lama's heroic struggle or in the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism will find Kundun the more richly rewarding experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of this review to get into Tibetan Buddhism, a few things can be said. First, Kundun is an extremely beautifully filmed movie, especially some of the scenes of the "magical" fortune-telling rituals, chanting and temple altars. Therefore, even if you are not Buddhist, you will enjoy watching the movie. Second, it may not really be all that important whether we Americans believe that the Dalai Lama is in fact the "fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion" or not. This is because there are vast cultural/technological differences between Tibet and America. In Tibet, the townspeople passively get on their hands and knees bowing to Kundun and wait for him to "bless" them - he is like their hope, their savior; in America, and in most of the west, this is not likely to happen - in our "information age," what we want from the Dalai Lama is not so much his blessing, but his insight. In this sense, we can ask, "What insight does Kundun offer?"

If you get beyond the Tibetan-specific magic and rituals, the Dalai Lama comes across as really just a man, not a god. Of course, he is "special" in that he is believed to be an actual reincarnation of the Buddha. This is actually one of the more interesting facets of the movie to us in the west - what exactly is Kundun: god, man, or "spirit?" In any case, one of the points the movie makes is that not even Kundun is beyond criticism; there are some times when Kundun's teachers need to correct his thinking on key points. Interestingly, a central point of Buddhism is that we all need to have a teacher; we can't simply enlighten ourselves. In Kundun, these teachers are wonderfully played, and if we listen carefully to what they say, and to what Kundun himself says, we can receive insights into the truth of the Buddhist teachings. In contrast to Seven Years, Kundun includes more mention of some of the basic teachings of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma of impermanence, and the awakening of compassion. Certainly, the extremely troubling destruction of Tibet by the Chinese army powerfully illustrates the truth of impermanence and compassion. In this way, even though the Tibetan culture on one level seems very "foreign" to us, on a basic human level, their story nonetheless is extremely moving.

So which of these two movies gets the recommendation? Actually both. My advice to the "Buddhist-inclined" or "Buddhism-curious" movie-goer is to set aside an evening or two and see or rent both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. These two movies are a kind of pair (although I'm sure producers Scorsese and Arnaud did not intend it that way). You should see both; Seven Years for its moving portrayal of the transformation of Harrer, and Kundun for its dedication to the story of the Dalai Lama and the struggle of the people of Tibet. And, in Kundun in particular, the cinematography almost seems to have a Buddhistic character in that it is calm and focused. If we can slow down and watch the movie on its terms, in a sense we become the Dalai Lama. In this way, Kundun, like the teachings of the Buddha, can help us to see the world anew.

-Peter Hata

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